Lake Dunlap residents may tax themselves to fix dam

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John Moore heard a loud boom that shook his Lake Dunlap house around 8 a.m. on May 14.

He ran out the front door and expected to see smoke. There was none. He went through the house and through the back door that was already ajar due to what he thought was an explosion.

“I had no idea what happened, but I saw twigs and debris in the water,” said Moore, who has lived with his family at Lake Dunlap for 3 ½ years. “The banks of the lake were being pulled away.”

One of three spill gates at the Lake Dunlap dam, which creates a nearly 9-mile, 410-acre lake along the Guadalupe River, had failed. Video shows the collapse, which allowed water to flow out of the lake and return the Guadalupe River to the way it was in 1931, the year the dam was built. In a matter of hours, 515 houses in Comal and Guadalupe counties lost the lakefront views they had purchased. Some estimate their property values dropped as much as 50 percent in a matter of hours.

“The dam just broke, and the water kept going down,” Moore said. “It was surreal.”

Many homes were left with docks leading to dangerous drops to the muddy bottom that became the new shore. Boats were stranded. Stumps were visible everywhere.

And now Lake Dunlap residents have been through Memorial Day and the Fourth of July without their lake.

Assessing the damage

Lake Dunlap begins in New Braunfels; goes through the city’s extraterritorial jurisdiction, or ETJ, into county jurisdiction and then into the Seguin ETJ. It is part of the Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority, which has six dams from Canyon Lake though 10 counties. It sells water and electricity with seven hydroelectric plants, though the electricity side of the business is much less lucrative, according to GBRA officials. New Braunfels Utilities relies on GBRA for water.

At a recent Guadalupe County Commissioners Court meeting, GBRA General Manager Kevin Patteson said a lack of maintenance done since the dams were built leaves the whole system vulnerable to the fate suffered at Lake Dunlap. In fact, the dam at Lake Wood, which was 229 acres, failed in 2016. It was completed in 1931 and has not been repaired.

Patteson told commissioners they have sought state and federal partners to help fund repairs for the system.

“There are no grants out there for this project, and we really can’t fund it on our own,” Patteson said.

Charlie Hickman, manager of the engineering division for GBRA, told commissioners the work to replace the gates at each dam could be $15 million-$24 million and take up to 28 months to complete each project. He said the current pace of repairs and replacement could take 15-20 years on the system where the six hydroelectric dams were built between 1928 and 1931.

The value of homes and property along Lake Dunlap as a lake are estimated to be $1 billion to the local economy.

Patteson said GBRA needs partners and would consider anything brought to the table. Sales of electricity are a losing venture, according to Patteson, in the red for $1 million-$1.5 million annually.

“[The GBRA] is not about to walk away from this, but there is no way at this point we can go it alone,” Patteson said. He also said the GBRA would have to look at the system as a whole, which could require $150 million or more in repairs.

“We don’t value one lake over the other because if you live on the lake it is your lake,” Patteson told commissioners. “If it goes dry, you’re going to be—upset is the wrong word for it—you’re going to be emotional.”

Emotional certainly describes 15-year Lake Dunlap resident J Harmon, who said he has not been able to take photos of his property since the lake emptied.

“I’m sick to my stomach when I think about this,” Harmon said. “I equate it to the stock market crash. To us, that was the day the dam broke.”

Driven by his desire to restore the quality of life Harmon and his neighbors are paying for, he penned a three-page proposal as president of the newly formed Preserve Lake Dunlap Association.

New group looks for a solution

In his missive, Harmon said the goals are straightforward and include restoring and preserving the values of the waterfront properties of Lake Dunlap, restoring the economic viability of businesses that support recreation on the lake, and to ensure the dam is repaired in a way that preserves the legacy of the lake for families and future property owners for generations to come.

To do that, Harmon said his PLDA board has worked with Texas State Sen. Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels, Texas State Rep. John Kuempel, R-Seguin, and Guadalupe County Judge Kyle Kutscher to propose a water district formation that would take control of the dam.

Harmon said more than 100 property owners have supported the idea of taxing themselves for 30 years by feet of waterfront land owned. Taxes would be based on lower property assessments, according to the plan, and would be $6-$8 per foot to cover the anticipated cost of replacing the gates.

Creating the water district could only come with the blessing of the GBRA and under the auspices of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

“It is a shame we are having to look at this, but we are told there will be no money from Texas and nothing from Washington, D.C.,” Harmon said. “Everybody has said ‘No, no, no,’ so are we going to take that or are we going to step up and fix it?”

A lake worth saving

Moore said he lost 17 feet of water at his dock in a matter of hours. He is trying to make the best of the situation, while also helping keep lake residents informed through frequent Facebook posts.

“Where we are is one of the wider spots,” Moore said. “The banks are starting to green up. People are cleaning up, and they are making the most of it. Let’s see if people will get behind this. We have a chance to preserve our investments so our families can enjoy this for years.”

Some homeowners have wells that dried up. Lake-dependent businesses are taking a financial hit as the summer season gets underway. Yet local leaders see hope from a devastating event.

New Braunfels Mayor Barron Casteel grew up on Lake Dunlap. While his family sold their property in 2006, he still spends time there with friends.

“My best friend and his family, it’s their largest investment,” Casteel said. “We’ve enjoyed spending time at their home on the lake. Now they spend more time with us.”

Casteel said he is supportive of a partnership plan proposed by the PLDA.

“It isn’t surprising to me that the property owners are looking at the creation of an entity to give them control of their destiny,” Casteel said. “This is tough. It is depressing, but I’m encouraged by the leadership of that lake.”

Harmon said he believes in the old-school way of leading the charge and leaving a legacy.

“I’ve been getting a lot of high fives,” he said. “But we have a lot of work to do.”

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Joe Warner
Joe Warner is managing editor of the nine Austin-Central Texas editions of Community Impact Newspaper. He previously served as senior editor of the flagship Round Rock, Pflugerville and Hutto newspaper. He came to Central Texas from Metro Detroit, where he was editor and general manager of several daily and weekly publications. He is the former president of the Michigan Press Association and was on the MPA board of directors for nine years.
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